Pope Benedict XVI, beginning his first U.S. visit as pontiff Tuesday, wasted no time in confronting the sexual abuse scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church in this country.
In his most extensive comments about the crisis to date, the pope said that he was “deeply ashamed” and that the scandal had caused “great suffering” for the church and for “me personally.” Speaking to reporters aboard his flight from Italy, Benedict also pledged greater efforts by the church to bar pedophiles from the priesthood.
Vatican officials have said the pope may raise the issue again as early as today, when, in addition to visiting the White House, he is to meet with American bishops at Washington’s National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The abuse scandal, which has cost the U.S. church more than $2 billion in legal settlements -- $660 million of that in Los Angeles -- since it erupted in 2002, is only one of several controversial issues Benedict is likely to address during his six-day visit.
At the White House today, the pope is expected to raise the topic of immigration when he meets with President Bush. Benedict told reporters he was especially concerned by what he called the grave problem of families separated by immigration policies, as well as by border violence.
Another subject that could arise during his private White House session is the Iraq war, which the pontiff has strongly opposed.
The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, said in an interview that she did not expect Benedict to confront the president directly on the war.
More likely, she said, Benedict and Bush will discuss their mutual interest in “strengthening the global moral consensus against terrorism, especially confronting the problem of religion being used for terrorist violence.”
Benedict’s practice “is usually to find and encourage what he considers to be positive developments,” said Glendon, who was among the dignitaries who greeted him at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
The pope, who turns 81 today, was welcomed by Bush upon his arrival at Andrews, in what the White House said was an unprecedented show of deference by the president for a foreign leader.
The white-haired pope, waving and smiling broadly, was met at the foot of the Alitalia airliner’s stairs by the president, First Lady Laura Bush and their daughter Jenna, along with about 200 officials and guests.
There were no public statements made or planned; the pope and the president are to hold their discussion today after an official welcoming ceremony that was expected to draw as many as 9,000 guests to the South Lawn.
Benedict’s visit to Washington and New York is the first trip to the U.S. by a pope since revelations of clergy sexual abuse were first made in Boston and later spread to dioceses nationwide.
The scandal, in which thousands of victims alleged they had been molested or raped by priests, bankrupted five dioceses and shattered families and parishes. Many of the victims were children at the time of the abuse.
Since assuming the papacy in 2005, Benedict has addressed the abuse issue more forcefully than his predecessor, John Paul II. And the statements during his flight Tuesday were strong and direct.
“We are deeply ashamed,” he said. “We will do what is possible so this cannot happen again in the future.”
Speaking in English and Italian as he answered four questions chosen from those submitted by reporters before the flight, Benedict said it was difficult for him to understand priests who had betrayed their sacred trust by molesting children, and he said the church was working to identify and exclude any seminary candidates who might harbor such tendencies.
“It is more important to have good priests than many priests,” said Benedict, who will mark the third anniversary of his pontificate this week. “We will do everything possible to heal this wound.”
A spokesman for a victims group, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he appreciated the words but hoped for more.
“Talk is cheap, action is better,” David Clohessy, national director of the group, said in an interview. “He’s been pope for three years and a top Vatican official for three decades. Expressions of remorse and promises of reform . . . ring pretty hollow at this point.”
No meeting with victims is scheduled, although Vatican officials have hinted that one may occur, perhaps informally and in private.
Such a session with the church’s highest leader could be healing for at least some victims and, perhaps, the American church, one analyst said.
“If that were to happen and was perceived as a heartfelt, sorrowful expression of solidarity and remorse in the collective sense, that could be very significant,” said R. Scott Appleby, professor of American religious history at the University of Notre Dame.
The abuse issue in recent years has loomed largest for the U.S. church, harming relations between parishioners and clergy and sparking continuing protests and legal wrangling over what critics consider the church’s many missteps in handling the issue.
“It is a great suffering for the church in the United States, and for the church in general, and for me personally that this could happen,” the pope told reporters on the plane.
Benedict is not new to the subject. As the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer under John Paul II, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was responsible for deciding whether to discipline priests accused of sexual abuse.
Shortly before his election as pope, Ratzinger decried the “filth” that had entered the clergy, an apparent reference to sexual abuse.
After becoming pope in 2005, Benedict disciplined Father Marcial Maciel, an influential Mexican bishop who had dodged abuse allegations for decades, and he urged bishops from Ireland, where the issue has arisen in many parishes, to work to rebuild their parishioners’ “trust and confidence.”
In 2006, the pope said abuses of children by priests were “egregious crimes.”
Groups representing victims of the abuse also have urged Benedict to call for the resignation of bishops who knowingly transferred abusive priests from parish to parish, and have asked him to meet with survivors during his visit.
In his talks with the pope, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said, the president is likely to raise topics in which “they have a shared commitment and shared values, such as human rights and individual dignity, [and] their work together to combat extremist ideology, especially in the Muslim world.”
She said the president also was interested in the pope’s efforts to foster interfaith dialogue. Perino said she did not expect the subject of the Iraq war to dominate the two leaders’ discussions.
The pope is also scheduled to visit ground zero and the United Nations in New York. Nearly 2,000 international staffers formed a line as long as a city block down the halls of the U.N. headquarters to get tickets for limited seats to the pope’s speech Friday before the General Assembly.
The 20-minute address is expected to focus on universal values and human rights and to have a strong antiwar message, though it won’t specifically touch on the Iraq war, said Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican’s representative at the U.N.
Benedict will first meet with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss reduction of poverty, climate change and dialogue among civilizations.
“We are facing many challenges these days,” Ban said Tuesday. “We need really strong spiritual support from the pope. I am really looking forward to meeting him on Friday.”
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang in Washington, Michael Muskal in Los Angeles and Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.